Q&A: Farewell, faux pas! Be your best employable self.

April 3, 2009

We all have preconceived notions about how a resume should look and what information a cover letter should convey. But, seeing as most of us are not hiring managers or HR reps, we might be off the mark. Taz Wilson, on the other hand, is right on the mark. Wilson, who works at staffing agency AltaStaff, sees hundred of resumes and cover letters from people looking to find jobs. Below, she tells you how to polish that resume and what never to say in a cover letter.

1. What do you consider an ideal first line in a cover letter?

I always say that a cover letter's first sentence should be like an email subject line: simple and direct (in sentence form, of course). It states your interest in the specific opportunity and how you found out about the job. For example, "I am interested in the Legal Secretary to the General Counsel opportunity posted on Monster.com." This statement gives a quick reference before reviewing your resume and cover letter and/or directing it to the hiring manager. With a volume of resumes to review for each opening, this straightforward "subject line" gives an immediate cue on the direction of your resume and search.

2. What are the most common resume mistakes and how can people fix them?

I believe the most common resume mistake is explaining your job duties rather than your successes. Focusing on responsibilities makes a resume read like a job posting (managed files, wrote proposals, edited documents, etc.); an employer can only match skill for skill. Turning the focus towards your successes and achievements allows the employer to see how your work can add value to the role and overall company. For example, we had a candidate who listed that she provided the monthly expense reports for her department. Upon further inquiry, we discovered that she created a workable spreadsheet to facilitate and standardize the expense reporting. Furthermore, upon discovery of this expense spreadsheet by their corporate office, the management adopted it as the corporate standard nation-wide. She never thought to communicate this huge achievement and value to her company on her resume because to her, it was a simply a component of her job. However, a future employer now looks at this achievement and sees a potential candidate who could also save their company time and money. With this candidate and most job seekers, it takes time to understand your personal value in a role and begin to explain this value in a resume. However, this time is well spent. Once you focus on achievements verses job duties you begin to distinguish yourself and your professional worth.

3. How do I sell myself in a cover letter without sounding like a cheerleader or telling an employer, "You must hire me"?

I see a cover letter as your written "2-minute elevator pitch" to a hiring manager. Much like a pitch to a potential investor, you need to communicate three items to in your pitch:

1. What are you selling?

2. What is your market and experience?

3. What is your value proposition?

Following this formula, explain who you are in paragraph one, describe your past professional achievements in paragraph two, and conclude with how these successes add value to this potential role and company going forward. Similar to your resume, your focus is communicating the value that you bring to a role. Both a strong cover letter and elevator pitch explain how your potential employer and investor will get a return on their investment and intrigue them to learn more.

4. If I am looking to relocate and am applying to jobs in other cities, do I have to address that in my cover letter? I am concerned employers aren't even considering me because I don't live there.

A cover letter provides a great opportunity to explain your relocation plans and interests. We find that one of the concerns that employers have with out-of-town candidates is their budgets do not allow for relocation compensation. If you address these plans and details in your cover letter, you can alleviate some employers concerns. For example, "I am currently conducting my job search from Michigan and plan to relocate to Chicago this spring."

5. What do employers look for in cover letters?

An employer wants a reason to interview a candidate in a cover letter. You want to convey why they should select you to fill that interview slot in their calendar. Specific employers could focus on skills and experience relevant to the specific opportunity (e.g. writing skills for an editor). However, your focus should be explaining how you added value and will add value with these skills and experiences.

Bonus Question: What are the top 5 phrases or words you NEVER want to see in another cover letter?

1. I need a job, desperately.

2. I was terminated (or fired) from my last position because of theft.

3. My goal is to work and save money until I can afford to travel around Europe.

4. I just need a job until something better comes along.

5. I need to make sure that I have health insurance by next month.